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William I. Thomas was born in 1863 in Virginia and raised there in a rural Protestant milieu. In 1884 he received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Tennessee. He then studied for two years in Germany followed by teaching English and sociology at Oberlin College. In 1893 he entered the sociology program at the University of Chicago Thomas as part of its first group of graduate students (he worked under Albion Small), receiving his doctorate in 1895. That same year he joined the newly formed faculty of sociology at the University of Chicago. He died in 1947, an independent researcher in Berkeley, California.
Thomas is well known for his collaboration with Florian Znaniecki in The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. Other celebrated works include The Unadjusted Girl and, with Robert Park and Herbert Miller, Old World Traits Transplanted. His reputation has lived on in sociology largely in the legacy he left symbolic interactionism in the theoretic sections of the Polish Peasant. Today Thomas is widely recognized as one of the founders of this field.
Thomas had an enduring interest in the pragmatic tradition in sociology, one center of which at the time was the University of Chicago. For him sociology concentrated on human activities, wherein people demonstrated conscious control in developing art, religion, language, forms of government, and the like. More precisely, sociology looks at attention, the attitude that takes note of the outside world and then manipulates it. From this stance he wrote a great deal about attitudes and attention, later preferring to conceptualize both as definition of the situation.
A dictum from a work co-authored with his wife, Dorothy Swain Thomas, ”if people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences,” (Thomas & Thomas 1928: 571-2) is still frequently quoted.
- Thomas, W. I. & Thomas, D. S. (1928) The Child in America. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
- Thomas, W. I. & Znaniecki, F. (1918-20) The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. Richard G. Badger, Boston, MA.